Inside the Viking Mind: Cosmology, the After-life, and the Self
Here are excerpts of a lecture given by Prof. Neil Price of the department of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Price’s research focuses on Viking culture and is notable for using material evidence to draw conclusions about the Viking state of mind.
“For nearly 200 years now,” wrote Price, “scholars have tried to find reasons why the Viking raids began, looking for an explanation as to why Scandinavians started to leave their homelands in significant numbers around the end of the eighth century. Over-population and climate change have been suggested, as have restrictive inheritance laws that left large numbers of young men landless and without prospects. Some scholars think that developments in Viking ship design, the creation of the perfect fast raiding vessel, made such activity inevitable; others argue that the Vikings’ alleged pagan mindset of aggressive violence was a contributory factor. It is obvious that there was no single cause, but simple opportunism played a part, and over time the rewards became ever more attractive in relation to the relatively minimal risks.”
The Norse believed in predetermination; one’s path through life toward any one of several after-life destinations could not be changed. Their emphasis was on meeting that end with dignity. It is one of the few cultures with no idea of an eternal afterlife. Everything – the living, the dead, the gods and all matter – will vanish into a void in the fire and ice of Ragnarök, the final battle.
Written records make it clear that shamanic practice of communicating with the spirit world, so central to pagan Norse religion, was primarily the realm of women.
“Foremost among these sorceresses,” wrote Price, were the völur, which means ‘staff-bearers’, who used their skills mainly to see the future. It has proved possible to tentatively identify many graves of such women in the archaeological record, buried with their metal staffs, unusual clothes and a variety of charms, amulets and even hallucinogenic drugs.”